I Admire Your Ability to Lose

I listened to a political activist speak over the weekend. He was gathering signatures for a petition to put a referendum up for a vote in the November election. As he described the proposal and read the wording of the referendum itself, he also mentioned that this was the third time that he and his fellows had attempted to get the referendum to pass and that most likely it would fail again.

Following his presentation, I approached him in order to tell him that the thing I admired most about his discussion was his candor about the likely failure of his efforts and that I especially admired his willingness to lose — but that he intended to go ahead and continue trying anyway.

He then explained to me why he was so ready to lose. He said that it was all about commitment, all about loyalty. He said that some men want to draw a big paycheck or build a great edifice, but he just wanted to speak something that he thought was right. It’s not about success, he said, it was about what was true, even if it wasn’t accepted as true.

I responded rather well to this explanation, since I have always leaned more towards a romantic perspective on things than a realistic one. Like many romantics, I often think that outcomes matter far less than the process of doing something. The act of questing or seeking something is often much more important than the reward. Indeed, completion frequently simply means a closure that is uninteresting by comparison to continuing to act.

Since I write about games, it was hard for me to not reflect afterwards a bit on how wins and losses are treated within the medium of video games.

In particular, this exchange got me thinking about my current gaming obsession, League of Legends, and how often the “problem” of loss, of surrender comes up in standard matches.

The premise of League of Legends is fairly simple. Two teams of five compete to destroy each others’ nexus. Doing so requires killing your opponents in order to gain money to buy equipment that makes you a more effective fighter and pushing and destroying towers that defend the opposite team’s nexus.

Matches can take anywhere from 20 minutes to around an hour. Of course, since a team could fall behind in the race to destroy their opponents nexus, there is alsways the option to surrender, forfeiting the game if you feel you have fallen too far behind to reasonably expect to win the match.

Since I started playing the game with some regularity eight months ago, I have found myself surprised at how common calls to surrender come from teams that have fallen even slightly behind. Sometimes a surrender vote will be called for when a team is only a kill or two behind the other or have lost just one tower. By contrast (but still with the spirit of surrender over loss in mind), other times surrender votes occur when the other team is in the process of destroying the nexus itself (meaning that there may be literally only two or three seconds left in a match).

Hanging in there in a match is incentivized by the fact that any match that one plays will reward a player with points that can be used to purchase game related goodies (like new characters or runes that empower players). Wins reward more points than losses (though not much more), losses secure more points than surrenders (though again with only slight differences), but overall, most of the points are gained by the length of time spent playing a match. In other words, the longer a match goes on, win or lose, the more points earned. Also, you cannot gain points for surrendering within the first twenty minutes.

All of these incentives both complicate and simplify the decision to surrender (in the latter case, no team really ever surrenders before the twenty minute mark). However, due to the small differences between the rewards for wins and losses, I have been shocked by how quickly many players are driven to hit that surrender button.

However, these practical “economic” reasons aside (as I said, I have ever been more the romantic, than the realist), I have simply been shocked at how many people simply want to quit at all, even in the face of inevitable loss.

As a gamer, I have always seen loss as having value in games. Chief of its virtues, loss has a profound effect on learning. Loss teaches what not to do next time and losing to a better opponent often offers insights on how to play better.

Even that description of loss, though, perhaps, speaks to a pragmatic approach to facing loss. Quite honestly, though, very often, I simply don’t like giving up in the face of defeat because I just don’t believe in bending a knee to my betters. I’d rather lose, than say uncle, as it were.

In a game I played a few months back a player in the game who was trying to convince my team (which was clearly losing) to surrender declared to us that we could not win. I responded, “Probably.” To which he asked, “Then why not surrender?” I responded, “Because sometimes it’s important to lose well.”

Now, I don’t want to suggest that I don’t play to win. I love winning. It’s just that, quite honestly, I love playing more than I love winning.

I feel in some way that, perhaps, the nature of the evolution of the concept of win states in video games may have changed our expectations about the goal of play. Early arcade games had clear “lose states,” the Game Over screen. Indeed, the inevitability of loss, of failure was built into the rather cynical quality of video games (G. Christopher Williams ”Pac-Man Will Die: Cynicism and Retro Gaming”, PopMatters, 28 July 2010). Eventual loss was expected in games until the concept of a goal, of a way to “beat” a game, to save a princess, or to save the world became a more significant outcome to play than merely scoring points.

We had been trained in the early arcade to lose, to expect to lose, and to accept losing.

The “continue” changed all that.

With the addition of the ability to continue play came the expectation that all games could be “won,” would be won.

Modern video games essentially have two outcomes: quitting because you have had enough of the game or eventual victory. “Losing” really isn’t an option. Well, at least losing through a fail state, quitting is a choice, a decision, a surrender.

Indeed, early continue screens in console games frequently read something like this: “GAME OVER. Continue? Yes or No?” Now , continue screens very often simply state, “GAME OVER. Click X to continue,” as if being told you had lost means nothing. The expectation is that being “beaten” isn’t really a true state. Of course, the player intends to continue. The only reason people quit is because they lose interest, not because of a failure on their part.

I wonder how much of this mindset, the idea that a video game must be won, or if it just isn’t working out, that quitting a game is the only reasonable choice has infiltrated the general attitude of players towards loss. Can we no longer accept that loss happens, that it is important? Does the concept of “losing well” mean anything at all to the gamer any longer?